James Leroy Wilson's blog

Friday, September 02, 2005

Reclaiming a Sense of Ownership

Lew Rockwell blames government, not Katrina, for the New Orleans disaster:

Only the public sector can preside over a situation this precarious and display utter and complete inertia. What do these people have to lose? They are not real owners. There are no profits or losses at stake. They do not have to answer to risk-obsessed insurance companies who insist on premiums matching even the most remote contingencies. So long as it seems to work, they are glad to go about their business in the soporific style famous to all public sectors everywhere.

And failure of one structure has highlighted the failures of other structures. The levees could not be repaired in a timely manner because roads and bridges built and maintained by government could not withstand the pressure from the flood. They broke down.

And again, it is critical to keep in mind that none of this was caused by Hurricane Katrina as such. It was the levee break that led to the calamity.
[...]
The problem here is public ownership itself. It has encouraged people to adopt a negligent attitude toward even such obvious risks. Private developers and owners, in contrast, demand to know every possible scenario as a way to protect their property. But public owners have no real stake in the outcome and lack the economic capacity to calibrate resource allocation to risk assessment. In other words, the government manages without responsibility or competence.

Can levees and pumps and disaster management really be privatized? Not only can they be; they must be if we want to avoid ever more apocalypses of this sort. William Buckley used to poke fun at libertarians and their plans for privatizing garbage collection, but this disaster shows that much more than this ought to be in private hands. It is not a trivial issue; our survival may depend on it.

It is critically important that the management of the whole of the nation's infrastructure be turned over to private management and ownership. Only in private hands can there be a possibility of a match between expenditure and performance, between risk and responsibility, between the job that needs to be done and the means to accomplish it.


Hans Hoppe argues in Democracy: the God That Failed, for a stateless society based on private property ownership. But he makes a persuasive case that, if we are to have states, monarchies are less bad then democracies because they preserve this sense of ownership. Would a king rather shell out the $250 million to shore up the levees now, so as to not lose tens of billions and thousands of lives later on? But in a democratic republic, no one is held accountable. In 2006 and 2008, those responsible for the budget cuts for New Orleans' civil engineering will focus instead on gay marriage or Intelligent Design or some such nonsense.

We can argue for stateless, anarcho-capitalism, and hope for a future society like that. I believe one way to work toward that end, while at the same time encourage wiser government today, is to promote the sense of ownership, which in turn promotes rationality, in the democratic republic as much as possible.

This would involve:

1) Moving the focus of politics away from cultural issues to economic issues - specifically, the economics of land ownership and use;
2) Moving taxes away from work, saving, and purchasing, and toward land and natural resource consumption;
3) Redistributing all unspent public revenue to all citizens as dividends, whether or not they paid taxes;
4) Decentralizing authority and making more offices accountable to the people; one-year terms with recall for a wide variety of executive officers so that they are punished immediately for their screw-ups.

Individuals would feel like they have a greater personal stake in how the public treasury is funded and spent, with incentives for minimizing public services and maximizing dividends. As a public, they might view strengthening the levees of New Orleans to be of greater importance than, say, "liberating" far away lands or arresting people for smoking pot. Or, they would let private insurance companies and other vested interests be responsible for the levees, as Mr. Rockwell recommends.

Any radical proposal will face resistence. But where reasoned arguments appealing to conscience and morality often fail, appeals to the pocketbook often prevail.

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